A female orca known best for carrying her dead calf with her for more than two weeks in apparent grief is now mother to a healthy male.
Tahlequah, a killer whale living a pod of whales in Pacific Northwest waters, gave birth in early September.
Researchers determined this week that her new calf is a boy, after examining images from a photographer who observed the orca pod on Tuesday near Point Roberts, Washington.
The calf, known as J57 to researchers, was frolicking alongside Tahlequah (also known as J35) with other orcas close by, photographer Sara Hysong-Shimazu said in a news release from the Pacific Whale Watch Association.
“It was really touching to see how active and social they were together and to see J57 surfacing with both his mom and surrounded by others in the community,” Hysong-Shimazu said. “He certainly seemed spunky and energetic!”
She also saw J57 “spyhopping,” something that whales, dolphins and some sharks do that involves sticking their heads vertically out of water. Most scientists believe animals do this to get a good look around, though some think it may be more related to enhancing hearing. The photographer described J57′s spyhop as “so cute.”
Tahlequah made headlines in 2018 for carrying her dead calf, which had died minutes after being born, for 17 days.
Deborah Giles, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, told HuffPost at the time that she felt it was accurate to describe the behavior as grieving.
“This is completely unprecedented, and honestly your guess is as good as ours as far as what is going on here,” Giles said. “I think it’s really easy to put human emotions on it, but personally I think it’s accurate. I think she is grieving.”
As happy as the news is, researchers had hoped the new calf would be female, since a female calf can grow up and produce more offspring.
“And obviously you don’t need that many boys when you have two males that have fathered most of the offspring in this population,” Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, told The Seattle Times.
Tahlequah and her son are part of the southern resident orca population, made up of three pods living near the Pacific Northwest coasts of the United States and Canada. The population had a total of 73 orcas as of December 2019 and is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Tahlequah isn’t the only whale in her pod to have given birth recently. J41, also known as Eclipse, gave birth to a “rambunctious little bundle of baby” on Thursday, naturalist Leah Vanderwiel said in a release from the PWWA. Eclipse’s calf’s sex and overall health are still unknown.